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Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Month: August 2015

Learning to Drive

‘Learning to Drive’ – A Conversation with Director Isabel Coixet, and Actors Patricia Clarkson & Sarita Choudhury

by Susan Kouguell

Sarita Choudhury, Isabel Coixet, and Patricia Clarkson

I recently sat down with director Isabel Coixet, and actors Patricia Clarkson and Sarita Choudhury at the Crosby Hotel in New York City, to discuss their new film “Learning to Drive.” The film, written by Sarah Kernochan, is based on the autobiographical New Yorker short story by Katha Pollit, a long-time political columnist for the Nation.

Wendy is a fiery Manhattan author whose husband has just left her for a younger woman; Darwan is a soft-spoken taxi driver from India on the verge of an arranged marriage. As Wendy sets out to reclaim her independence, she runs into a barrier common to many lifelong New Yorkers: she’s never learned to drive. When Wendy hires Darwan to teach her, her unraveling life and his calm restraint seem like an awkward fit. But as he shows her how to take control of the wheel, and she coaches him on how to impress a woman, their unlikely friendship awakens them to the joy, humor, and love in starting life anew.

My conversation began with Isabel Coixet and Sarita Choudhury

Isabel Coixet and Sarita Choudhury
Isabel Coixet and Sarita Choudhury

Isabel Coixet’s award-winning film credits include “Demaisiado viejo para morir joven,” “Things I Never Told You,””My Life Without Me,” “The Secret Life of Words,” “Paris, je t’aime,” “Elegy,” “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo,” “Yesterday Never Ends,” “Another Me,” “Nobody Wants the Night,” as well as documentaries, including “Invisibles.”

Currently, Sarita Choudhury can be seen on Showtime’s “Homeland.” Her film credits include “Admission,” “Gayby,” “Midnight’s Children,” “Generation Um…,” “Entre Nos,” “The Accidental Husband,” “Lady in the Water,” “The War Within,” “Mississippi Masala,” “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love,” “She Hate Me,” “Just a Kiss,” “Wild West,” “High Art,” “The House of the Spirits,” “Gloria,” and “A Perfect Murder.”

Susan Kouguell: Tell me about the process of how “Learning to Drive” came about.

Isabel Coixet: We started talking about making this film with Patricia and Ben Kingsley when we were making “Elegy” (directed by Coixet, starring Clarkson and Kingsley) and we got along very well and we wanted to make another film together. Patricia discovered the short story by Katha Pollit, and she gave it to me and I thought it was wonderful. And then we got the screenwriter Sarah Kernocha involved. The film is a comedy but not a classical comedy. It was a very difficult film to pitch because you know financiers and producers want something they can put in one box and you can’t with this film. It was a long process. It took nine years.

Some Words Unspoken and the Intimacy of the Camera

Isabel Coixet: There is always this romantic feeling underneath [subtext], I think there is that possibility. You have to be true to your words. If they are true, you will have to stick to your words.



Susan Kouguell and Patricia Clarkson




Top Five Tips on Writing About Family Relationships (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Top Five Tips on Writing About Family Relationships

by Susan Kouguell

When one thinks about the word “family” many reactions quickly come to mind. There is the genuine, heartfelt response: “I have the best family ever” – to — “Oy vey. Don’t ask.” Every family has a story to tell. And every family relationship differs.

This is all true in real life, and it’s true in the world you are creating in your screenplay. Regardless of the genre you’re writing in, familial relationships should be conveyed with poignancy and depth.

In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I discuss family relationships. Here’s an excerpt:

Relationships between parents and children, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and grandparents, and so on, are wrought with misunderstandings, jealousy, poor communication, disappointments, as well as love, joy, and pride.

Top Five Tips on Writing About Family Relationships by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine

Complex mother/daughter relationships are depicted in such films as Terms of Endearment (written and directed by James L. Brooks), as seen in the stubborn and independence-seeking Emma and her possessive widowed mother Aurora, and in Mildred Pierce, (directed by Michael Curtiz, screenplay by Ranald MacDougall) in which Mildred, an overly devoted and hardworking mother, sacrifices everything for Veda, her spoiled, ungrateful, and insufferable daughter.

Equally complex father/son relationships are seen in Big Fish, (directed by Tim Burton, screenplay by John August) and Catch Me If You Can, (directed by Stephen Spielberg, screenplay by Jeff Nathanson). In Big Fish, traveling salesman Edward Bloom’s fabled tales about his fantastical life captivate everyone but his journalist son, Will, from whom he becomes estranged. When Will returns home to reconcile with his dying father, Edward does not understand how his stories have truly affected his son and Will struggles to accept his father for who he truly is. In Catch Me If You Can, Frank Jr., learns the art of deception from his father whom he tries to impress and financially supports. Although Frank Sr. senses that his son is a fraud, he does not confront him or tell him to stop his cons. As the plot unfolds, the father/son relationship shifts to Frank Jr. and FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who always tells Frank the truth, and repeatedly tells him to stop his cons.

Complicated sibling relationships are portrayed in such films as The Skeleton Twins (directed by Craig Johnson, screenplay by Mark Heyman, Craig Johnson), East of Eden (directed by Elia Kazan, screenplay by Paul Osborn), in which rival brothers, Cal—the unappreciated, insecure loner—and his twin, the dutiful and favored son, Aron—compete for their devoutly religious and self-righteous father’s love. In Sweetie (written and directed by Jane Campion) the emotionally unstable, self-centered, overtly sexual, and manipulative Dawn (known as Sweetie) brings chaos and hurt to the lives of her parents and her sister, Kay—who, wrought with her own set of emotional issues, despises Sweetie for creating unrelenting trouble for their dysfunctional family yet is the only one, who attempts to save her life at the end.

Unstable family relationships are portrayed in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale and in writer/director Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages. The Squid and the Whale examines the Berkman family’s transition and redefinition when parents Bernard and Joan decide to divorce. Teenage sons, Walt and Frank, prematurely come of age, struggling with their conflicted and confused emotions, as they must cope with the repercussions of their estranged parents’ respective actions. In The Savages, Wendy, an aspiring Manhattan playwright, and her brother, John, a theater professor in Buffalo, New York, are forced to come to terms with their respective troubled lives and romantic relationships, when they must take care of their unsympathetic father, who is suffering from dementia.

Top Five Tips

  1. EMPATHY: Characters’ relationships with family members must be empathetic. Readers need to feel something for your characters’ relationships whether it’s love or hate; they need to understand their dynamics, as to why they get along or don’t get along.
  2. CONFLICT: Regardless of the genre you are writing in, agreements and disagreements, discords and disharmony, must be conveyed in a way that readers gain an understanding of what’s causing the root of their issues.
  3. MAKE THEM HUMAN: Even if your characters are nonhuman (such as the father/son relationship in Finding Nemo) – humanize your characters by giving them identifiable histories, vulnerabilities, and behaviors. Whether your characters misbehave or are always on good behavior, demonstrate their specific emotional, mental, physical, and/or social behaviors.
  4. MOTIVATIONS: The reasons your characters take the actions they do to help or hinder each other in families, stem from inward and outward motivations. Characters must have clear and plausible motivations that give insight into who they are and the actions they take.
  5. ATTITUDE: Characters must have specific attitudes towards each other. Show how your characters view themselves, relate to others or don’t fit in with their family members.

In real life and in the movies, and in comedies and dramas, successfully drawn family relationships can offer insight, truths, nods of understanding, if not a few chuckles along the way.


Conversation with Gerwig and Baumbauch – MISTRESS AMERICA

A Conversation with Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbauch at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

By Susan Kouguell | 19, 2015 at 1:00PM

Following the screening of their new film “Mistress America,” writer and director Noah Baumbach and writer and producer Gerta Gerwig, shared a lively and insightful discussion.
Gerta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach
Gerta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach

Following the screening of their new film “Mistress America,” writer and director Noah Baumbach and writer and producer Greta Gerwig, shared a lively and insightful discussion about their collaborations, writing, “Frances Ha” (in which Gerwig played the titular character), and her new starring role.

Tracy, a lonely college freshman in New York, is having neither the exciting university experience nor the glamorous metropolitan lifestyle she envisioned. But when she is taken in by her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke—a resident of Times Square and adventurous gal about town—she is rescued from her disappointment and seduced by Brooke’s alluringly mad schemes.

About Gerwig’s roles as Frances in “Frances Ha” and Brooke in “Mistress America”

Gerwig: Frances and Brooke share a type of madness. Frances literally stumbled at times. She had this running, loping, falling pace to her. Her fits and starts of conversation, and her flashes of confidence and then going back in. And, Brooke, the way we dressed her, was not really of this time — like a misguided businesswoman with little heels, her little boots, and her pants were too short. She stomped around, and would keep stomping. She had no real shame register.

Baumbach: Brooke was someone we recognized. Aspects of Brooke are familiar to us. She felt like someone out of the movies. Brooke is in some ways all performance. Brooke is a movie. The movie is going on for her. That felt intuitively right.

Gerwig: With Brooke’s character introduction “Welcome to the Great White Way,” she starts this gesture that she realizes halfway down the stairs was not big enough to cover the whole stairs and has to keep going. She doesn’t have a moment of “What have I done?” She just keeps going. She’s kind of a hair flipper the way she speaks.


Susan’s Writing the Family Film

Writing the Family Film
4-week online course starts August 6

This workshop will guide you through the structural and thematic elements common among the most successful family films of all time.  By the end of this workshop, you will have a complete treatment for your feature-length family film and  all the tools you need to see your project to the end.